14. Faith & Love

Short Meds in ‘Living the Life’: 14. Faith & Love

Gal 5:6  “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

As we started this series we declared our intent was to seek to view afresh this Christian life we are called to live and they have turned out to be things that are quite contrary to the ways that the world thinks. Just recently we have been thinking how God’s provision for us is not limited by material limitations but now we go backwards, so to speak, by observing the most basic and most fundamental elements of the Christian faith.

One paraphrase version speaks of faith expressed in love” while another puts it, “faith which expresses itself in love,” but it seems to me that the emphasis they bring is on OUR action, our response, in our love for God we express faith, and I am sure that is partly right, but there is another deeper way, I believe of viewing this. The apostle John wrote, “We love because he first loved us.” (1 Jn 4:19) Put it another way, we have love because we are loved, because we are the recipients of love. God made us to be people capable of giving and receiving love, knowing something of what love means and we are what we are today because we have been loved and we look into a future in which we anticipate more of this love. We live, with Him, in an environment of love; it is like the air we breathe, it’s all around us.

Much of the time Christians focus their thinking and their ‘spiritual actions’ on reaching out to God, of performing ‘worship’ or ‘prayer’ as vehicles not only expressing our love but as means of reaching Him. We ‘do’ to get near Him, we ‘do’ to achieve things and yet our verse above suggests a possibility of something else, of faith being an expression of living in this fish tank of love, of us swimming in it.

In context Paul was saying, put aside all your religiosity, your religious thinking, the only thing that matters is the way faith oozes out of your live saturated by God’s love. We don’t HAVE to have faith, because when we realize we are in this environment of love, faith will naturally flow through us, as we hear the whispers of God and respond the His advances of love, advances that were seen in the Cross, received as the Spirit was imparted and which will continue for ever: today, tomorrow and into eternity, His love. So yes, like the air we breathe, His love surrounds us and like the air around us we can take it for granted, but faith appreciates it and soars in it. Can you see this?  The possible life for this year, seen not as a series of actions, or of church performances, but as life in an existence that IS love because we are ‘in Him’  and He IS love (1 Jn 4:8,16). When we become aware of this, all we think, say and do is an expression of faith that naturally flows out of being loved, of being aware of this entire environment of love in which we now exist. Maybe we hadn’t been aware if it before, but now we bathe in it, swim in it, rejoice in it, grow in it, worship in it, speak naturally to God in it, read His word with fresh eyes in it, love others in it. Do it, enjoy it, wonder in it.  

1. The Ephesus Experience – Busyness

The Church Kaleidoscope Meditations:  1. The Ephesus Experience: Busyness

Rev 2:1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write” 

Speaker: In each ‘letter’ Jesus reveals himself in a different way, each one corresponding to one of the descriptions in chapter 1. Here he comes as he, “who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands,” i.e. the watching head of the church, hence his following words, “I know”. He sees and he knows all that goes on in each of our churches, perhaps better than we do!

Encouragement/Approval: Next he says, “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name and have not grown weary.” (v.2,3) This is an active church, a busy church. I am sure if you were the Pastor or Minister of this church you would be pleased with the involvement of your people. They are doers! But more than that, they are righteous and will not tolerate wrong people. And also, further, they are discerning for they have rejected counterfeit apostles. Excellent guys! You are servants of God, holy and discerning of enemy activities.  A great church!

Challenge: But! There is almost always a ‘but’ or a ‘yet’ and it always tends to be negative: “Yet I hold this against you.” (v.4a) Wow, we didn’t see that coming, we’re a good church, active, holy and so much more. Yes, but that doesn’t make you perfect and that is one of the ways we may deceive ourselves. Just because there is so much good in our church, that can blind us to what is missing, where we fail to do the whole will of God. What is Jesus’ complaint here? “You have forsaken the love you had at first.” Hang on, how are we different from what we used to be, surely all our activity means we show Jesus how much we love him. Didn’t the apostle John say, let us not love with words or speech but with actions”? (1 Jn 3:18) Yes, but that verse ends with, “and truth”.

The Danger: A danger we all face is that we turn from the basic expressions of love coming from God that motivates us to love in return and we start doing ‘good works’ to earn approval or make us feel good. So often we have prayer meetings, we do evangelism, we hold events, all to do the works of Jesus, just like Martha. Do you remember her? When Jesus came to their home Martha scuttled around cleaning up, preparing food, doing stuff, while Mary just sat with Jesus and listened to him (see Lk 10:38-42). What a difficult tightrope it is to walk sometimes, yes doing the stuff but holding on to that intimacy with Jesus at the same time. How easy it is for Sunday services to become routine, ritualistic without meaning, just a habit instead of coming into the very presence of God and knowing a sense of intimacy that thrills us into worship. Jesus himself is to be our first love, God is to be our first love, and when we first turned to Him it was like a honeymoon, bubbly and exciting.

Is this important? Isn’t it natural to cool off a bit? Yes, it is but we’re supernatural spiritual people. In marriage it is so easy for the relationship to become ordinary and almost mundane and so we need to say things and do things that are special expressions of love, and that’s true for God as well. Is it important? Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.” (v.5a) Consider – think about it, think about how your spiritual life has been. Repent – change, change your heart, your mind, your actions. Do – get back to how it used to be. Pray, set aside times to listen to Him, stop being so busy and making excuses that say you can’t do it. This is serious stuff: “If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” (v.5b)

And Yet:  He doesn’t leave them smarting, he says something more that is encouraging. He is pleased with something more about them: “But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” (v.6) Without going into it in depth, let’s just say these other people were heretics who led people away from the truth. The Ephesians hated that and weren’t going to let it happen to them, good stuff!  A call to remain faithful to the truth and to the Lord.

Conditional Hope: Each letter concludes with words to those who will hear and respond and deal with the issues. It calls for a heart that is open, ears that will hear (and respond!): “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (v.7a) This does need saying: another deception is that we hear the words and think that is enough. It isn’t. Obedience, repentance, change is all that will satisfy the Lord. But whenever we ‘repent’ we turn away from one thing and turn towards another. The other is always to be Jesus, in him is the resource he speaks of. And yet there is a condition: “To the one who is victorious,” and this suggests effort, activity, change, fresh purpose. To be victorious, in the light of what Jesus has said earlier, means to break through the environment of activity and business to reach the rarer air of the presence of God and the fresh, daily knowledge of his love.

The Promise: The promise for the one who is victorious in this is, “I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” So what does that mean? Stop and think, this was the state before the Fall when Adam and Eve had access to God and to a tree that guaranteed them ‘life’. The paradise of God, that which Jesus on the cross promised the penitent thief (Lk 23:43), is available immediately after death according to Jesus. It is the place of the Presence of God. As we said just now, it is to break through the environment of activity and business to reach the rarer air of the presence of God and the fresh, daily knowledge of his love.

Ans So?  This is the challenge that comes to us via the church in Ephesus: will we resist the smog of over-busyness that is so symptomatic of the age in which we live, and instead determine to be the people of God who make the time to be in our Lord’s presence, both exhibiting and catching again that first love, the love for Jesus that was so fresh, vibrant and exciting that we knew when we first met him. If we are not sure how to go about this, prayer is the first step, prayer that acknowledges this fog that so hinders us, prayer that asks for forgiveness, and prayer that asks for His grace to draw us near to Him, for without His help we are lost in the fog. May that not be!

Snapshots: Day 100

Snapshots: Day 100

The Snapshot: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deut 6:5)   Jesus decreed this was the first and greatest commandment (Mt 22:37,38). How easy and clear cut it sounds, and how often it is used as an exhortation by preachers. How might it be summarized? Go all out for God. Right! But do I do that every minute of every day? Honesty says no. It is my intention and it is surely the undergirding commitment that I have, but the reality? Two things follow: first I need His grace, His enabling and, second, I need the Cross to cover my ‘falling short’. Yes, I incline my heart in His direction in my daily walk but without these two things, hopeless! The command simply focuses my need of Him in these ways.

Further Consideration:  I have always found Joshua’s words a great challenge: But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Josh 24:14) I am also reminded of Peter’s response to Jesus: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (Jn 6:68) In both verses there is this challenge – if not God then who or what, and the answer isn’t just, “‘There is no one else,” but more, “It’s a no-brainer because God is so wonderful you would be silly to lean on anyone or anything else.”

But then we turned to the Lord. We came to the end of ourselves and His hands of mercy were stretched out to us and we received the salvation through Christ that He held out to us. Mostly, I suspect, it wasn’t love. We didn’t really know what that was. It was only later we came across such verses as the starter ones above. My wife is one of the really honest ones when she so often says, “I just don’t know what I am feeling.” Isn’t love supposed to be a feeling? Well yes, as I have got to know more and more of Him and experienced more and more of His blessings, I have had that feeling, that deep feeling of strong affection, as a dictionary says. But most of the day I don’t go around with my heart and mind directed towards heaven with a nice warm fuzzy feeling, it just isn’t like that.

So how do we express this whole-hearted love? “how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” (1 Jn 3:16) Hah! Love is action! “let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 Jn 3:18) “this is love for God: to keep his commands.” (1 Jn 5:3) As I live the life in accordance with His word and by the prompting of His Spirit, this is love, and when I do it all the time – this is whole-hearted love. Hallelujah!

17. God of Under-girding Love

Getting to Know God Meditations:  17. God of Under-girding Love

1 Jn 4:8,16   God is love

Ex 34:6,7 “the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”

God is Love?  The apostle John said it most simply: “God is love”. Notice He IS love, not love is God, but He IS love, everything about Him is love. It has to mean that everything He thinks, says or does is an expression of love.  This love under-girds everything that happens to do with God! When He revealed Himself to Moses (one of the early revelations about the character and nature of God) see the descriptions above, especially “abounding in love”. Abounding suggests overflowing with, excessively so. Now this is a challenge when we come to read the Bible because it means we need to read what happens through this filter and sometimes ask, “How is what is happening here, an expression of love?” and when we do that we will start thinking more intelligently and with much more understanding, not only of God but of ourselves, the human race.

But what about…? Now let’s face the elephant in the room, as they often say today, the big thing lurking in the background that we prefer to ignore. Christians try to ignore this ‘elephant’, this enormous thing in the background, which is the complaint of the atheistic skeptic, “If your God is a God of love, how come He is involved in genocide, wiping out whole nations, men, women and children?” I confess I struggle with the hypocrisy of this in the light of a period of recent history where it was recognized that for the greater good, whole cities were bombed into extinction almost, by both sides (Coventry and Dresden), and entire populations wiped out twice by H-bombs in Japan. But that is a bigger story but the lesson is still basic: in this fallen world we sometimes have to choose the lesser of two evils. Evils yes, but the only path through horror to reduce it.

Misunderstandings: Part of our confusion – the negative question above – comes from an inability to read scripture comprehensively. For example, the above accusation arises again and again in respect of the incident that was part of the whole Exodus scenario where Israel are told to oust the occupants of Canaan. Now I have never yet come across a critic who has carefully read the entire Pentateuch (the first five books, and for good measure add Joshua) for if they had they would know that the instructions from God to Israel contain the words “drive out” over thirty times and the words about ‘wiping out’ less than half a dozen times. The full picture is that God’s intent was for the land to be cleared. Most people in the area heard of the might of this people (over a million) moving through the lands and fear went ahead of them, fear that was designed to get the enemy to flee. God’s primary intent was that the occupants would be driven out of the land and only if they resisted and fought Israel would the normal effects of war follow (death for all involved – talk to people who experienced the Blitz in London in the last World War!).

Discipline or Judgment: Again another aspect of this same cavilling criticism comes in the form of, “Is the God of the New Testament different from the God of the Old Testament, one a God of love, the other a God of judgment? The Old Testament seems full of His judgments!” Well, actually so is the New, but let’s examine the language that is being used. ‘Discipline’ means to bring about correction. Discipline may or may not be part of so-called ‘judgement’. Now I researched for a book entitled “The Judgments of a Loving God” and investigated every judgement in the Bible that originated with God (be careful, some acts of destruction were not God originated, but people originated). Let me tell you some of my careful conclusions.

First, we may categorize judgments in two ways: a) as ‘disciplinary judgments’  that are designed to bring about change of behaviour, and don’t focus on death, and b) terminal judgments or judgments of the last resort, that bring death.

Disciplinary judgments: These, I would suggest from the record, showing the principle in Rom 1:24-32, where we find such words as “God gave them over to” which implies God lifted off His hand of restraint or protection (that we so often take for granted) from mankind or a part of it. The result is that either i) the sin that was running rampant is allowed total free reign so that it implodes upon itself until people repent (which is happening in the West at the present), or ii) His hand of protection is removed from His people so that they stand on their own, as their current behaviour indicates they want to, and become vulnerable to attacks from surrounding enemy neighbours, until they repent. We see this latter cycle again and again, we’ve already noted, in the book of Judges. Note in both cases the pain that comes in such instances is not from God but from increasing sin or the behaviour of other sinful people. We so often blame God in such situations but the reality is that He just steps back and lets the effects of our own sinful behaviour run amok.

Terminal Judgments: These are ones where people die, apparently at the hand of God. People do die at the hands of other humans sometimes in disciplinary judgments but that is the work of sin and not God. Where there are terminal judgments, apparently brought by the hand of God, I have given these a sub-label of ‘judgments of the last resort’ because it appears that nothing else God could do would restrain or control the situation to halt the destruction that mankind was already bringing on itself. Again and again in such cases we need to investigate carefully what was going on and see the awfulness of the pagan practices or behaviour that God was acting against to limit the self-destruction that was going on – and which was spreading like a cancer.

Over-riding Principles: Because these criticisms seem to arise again and again, even among the poorly read Christian community, I find I have to write these things again and again, and again and again I have to declare Scripture and say, think about what it says. Where there are general criticisms against the God of love, just think of the wonderful world He has given us (which we abuse) and observe in Scripture the wonderful things He did for His people, despite their constant failings. Where there is a song of praise and expressions about God’s love, they are so often linked to His acts of redemption and salvation generally, for example, “Show me the wonders of your great love, you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes,” (Psa 17:7) or  “Who among the gods is like you, O LORD? …. “In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed.” (Ex 11:13,15).

However, the big declarations of God’s intent come through the mouth of the great prophet Ezekiel: Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23),  and, “Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” (Ezek 18:31,32) and, “‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” (Ezek 33:11) which perhaps is also captured by the apostle Peter in his second letter: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9) supported by his later words, “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation.” (v.15)

And So? The Bible speaks of God as a God of love. That love is often shown by restraint, is always shown by His grace and His provision (both of which we need to consider more fully in the days ahead), is sometimes seen in the way He steps back and allows us to do our own thing until we come to our own senses, and rarely by His acts where life is forfeited for the good of the greater population (always after much time has been given for change of behaviour and attitude to come about after many warnings had been given).

Always at the conclusion of such a study as this, I feel we need to remind ourselves of Jesus’ amazing parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-24) where the son demands his rightful inheritance, goes and wastes it until he is left envying the pigs in his care for the food they have. There are two primary aspects of the parable: first the son, representing us and our folly in rejecting the Father, and then the amazing father, representing God, who allows the son his demands, allows him to ruin his life, but welcomes him back with open loving arms the moment he decides to return. THAT is the God of love we see throughout the Bible.

3. The Example of David

Studies in Isaiah 55: 3. The Example of David

Isa 55:3b   I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.

Recap:  The call at the beginning of this chapter is to those who are hungry and thirsty to come to the waters and drink and buy provisions without money. We concluded this was a call to receive these spiritual provisions through listening to the Lord. The challenge also came to consider what we are doing with our lives, do we have a right focus so we don’t just work for that which never satisfies. Instead if we listen to the Lord and take in what He says, it will be like receiving a feast for the soul that will not only feed and nourish us but give us eternal life.

Old Covenants: Now consider the living waters that will nourish and feed them. It comes in the form of a promise of a new covenant: “I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.” The first covenant mentioned in the Bible was that given to Noah (Gen 9:9-) never to flood the earth again. It was an ‘everlasting covenant’ (9:16). The next covenant was that given to Abram: “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.” (Gen 17:7, reiterated in 17:19 and extended to the priesthood in Num 18:19 and to limit the covenant to the circumcised Gen 17:13). The next was at Sinai (Ex 19:5 and subsequent chapters) that Israel be God’s ‘treasured possession… a kingdom of priests’ which implies to the rest of the world. When later in Isaiah He speaks of them as a ‘light to the nations’ (Isa 42:6) it is clear that that covenant was not only a relational one between God and His people, but it was also intended to reveal God through them to the rest of the world. That still stood.

New Covenant: Through Isaiah now comes this mention of a new and everlasting covenant. Now the reference here is to David: “I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.“  It is a covenant to the readers (listeners) and the subject of it is the Lord’s love that He promised to David. Now when we go back to David we find the Lord promised him, Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.’” (2 Sam 7:16) Now the Lord says of David,  See, I have made him a witness to the peoples, a ruler and commander of the peoples.” (v.4) or as an expanded version puts it, “I made David a witness of my power for all.” i.e. under his rule God expressed His power that raised David up and made him a victorious ruler who brought peace to Israel throughout his reign in respect of the surrounding nations (except later when the Lord disciplined David).

Current Application: He has just declared this new covenant of love, a covenant reflecting all that had been said to David, and now Isaiah goes on to explain what impact that will have on Israel: “Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations you do not know will come running to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor.” (v.5) As we said at the beginning, these verse thoughts tend to go in pairs and so these two verses point us first to David (v.4) and then show how the Lord applies that to Israel in that day (v.5). Even as He had made David victorious (because of his heart for God), so the Lord will make this future ‘woman’ (54:1), this future ‘city’ (54:11) – assuming we accept the link between the two chapters – not only great in number but victorious in the earth. It is a word that comes up a number of times in such prophecies.

Wider Application: Again and again – with Abraham and with David – we can see, in the bigger picture, the promises made have a much wider application than simply the one ‘biological nation’. The promises of blessing to all nations – “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:3) – is about people of faith who can become God’s people, not merely people of faith within ‘biological Israel’, but also from the Gentiles across the whole world as well, all of whom comprise the real faith ‘people of God’, who express the kingdom of God. When the Lord spoke to David about one who, “is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever,” (2 Sam 7:13) although, no doubt, David understood that to mean Solomon, it is clear from Scripture that in the bigger picture it referred to the coming of Jesus, for in him only, do the words about an everlasting kingdom come true.

Earlier in Isaiah we read of a coming son, “Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it  with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” (Isa 9:7) This child, will be God in the flesh (v.6). David demonstrated a rule of righteousness, peace and victory, and now the Son of God rules over a kingdom even today and will continue to rule until the time when he has achieved all that is on God’s heart to be done: “when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor 15:24-26) What are the enemies of the kingdom of God? Unrighteousness, ungodliness, rebellion, disobedience, expressed in all the ways the apostles spoke about – e.g. Col 3:5-9, Eph 4:17-19,29-31, Jas 1:14,15, 5:1-6, 1 Pet 2:1,11,  4:3,4,21, 1 Jn 2:16, 3:4. These are the enemies of Christ, the things he works against today and will finally vanquish when he returns again (see Rev 19).

And So? What have we seen so far here? The Lord seeks to encourage His people by declaring a new covenant of love, patterned on the rule of David. His intent was that all His people who had an open heart to Him could experience something of this rule in the present day. Yet there would be a greater fulfillment of this word with the coming of Jesus (for us, now two thousand years ago) and an even greater fulfillment when he returns a second time. God’s intent is that we know and experience this love that has so many practical outworkings. For us today, we need to remind ourselves that we live in the kingdom that is only partially here: sometimes we sense His close presence, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we pray and see answers, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we pray for healing or deliverance and see it, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes when we witness, people get saved, sometimes they don’t. And so it is, but let the positive things encourage you to press on until the day when He comes in glory and all WILL be submitted to Him, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” (Phil 2:10) Amen!

7. Loved

Studies in Isaiah 54: 7. Loved

Isa 54: 10  “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

 Grace Prevailing over Justice: In the previous study we saw how the Lord was using the analogy of Noah and the Flood to explain His faithfulness, we should say, in respect of Israel. Even as Noah had moved His heart and brought a promise of grace prevailing over justice, so that same grace would prevail today so that, although He had indeed cast them away for a moment because of their disobedience, now He would come to them and restore that previous relationship. We did go into verse 10 as we mentioned the covenant of peace, but there is something even more wonderful there that we must take hold of.

In a Shaken World: The first phrase of this present verse may be skimmed over by many (me included often) but it is highly significant: “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills removed.” In other words it doesn’t matter how disastrous the world seems, God’s love is going to be there. Now don’t take this casually because very often (along with Chicken Licken) we feel the sky is falling down as things around us seem to deteriorate. At the time I write, the political landscapes of the UK and USA have been transformed and in the UK in particular (although some in the USA say they feel the same) chaos seems to ensue. For many this has created a world-weariness, almost a mental and emotional exhaustion that is only helped by turning off and ignoring the news.

But it is more than just than the political landscape. Older generations feel lost in a world that has been utterly transformed in their lifetime. The world has been shaken for them by technology. Younger generations complain that because of the self-centred carelessness of older generations they have been put into a situation where financially they are disadvantaged; their world has been shaken.  But this ‘shaking’ can be much more personal; when illness strikes or downsizing comes to your workplace and the job you have held for thirty years is suddenly gone, it comes like an earth-shattering loss. In many ways it feels like the earth is being shaken and things we have taken for granted for so long (the hills) are removed from our lives, and it makes us feel very vulnerable.

Need of Security: It is at such times that we desperately feel we need security. When the ‘ground is shaking’ and when ‘the hills are being removed’ we suddenly start thinking about these things. While everything was going along fine, we just took life for granted.  There was food on the table, the sun shone and day followed day without a worry or care in sight. And then the ground shook. We felt it but it would pass quickly. But then it continued shaking and then ‘the hills were removed’ and suddenly everything was different. It happens all the time in the Fallen World, especially this modern world where change is the name of the game every day it seems. It can be highly disconcerting but such shaking can wake us up to the realities of our life – we have taken so much for granted, we had become complacent with our relationship with the Lord, almost superficial if we are honest. Then comes the shaking – usually a loss, of a job, of health or of a loved one – and we start praying, we start crying out, “Are you there?” Of course He is but we had become things-focused instead of God-focused and so lost that sense.

The Word Comes: Then comes the word of the Lord: my unfailing love for you will not be shaken.” The psalmist says the same thing: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.” (Psa 46:1,2) He doesn’t mention the word ‘love’ there but that is what it is all about and why he does not need to fear. The earth may be shaken but God’s love will not be shaken. David knew this same love: “save me because of your unfailing love.” (Psa 6:4) Whatever else might change, God’s love would not. All other resources might run out, but God’s love will never fail, will never be exhausted. Jeremiah was prophesying against the same thing when he declared, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jer 2:13) Not only had the people turned away from God who was an everlasting source of life and love, but they had tried to manufacture their own forms of provision and security and those always failed! No, God’s love is unfailing, that is why He is so often referred to as ‘faithful’ because He is unchanging.

Beware Appearances: I often teach on the fact that Jesus is seated at the Father’s right hand ruling in the midst of his enemies, and will continue to reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet, and it is at such times that I sense that readers or listeners have the same query as Gideon had that we considered in the previous study. It is so common we need to repeat it here: if God is around, why are all these things happening? In another context recently I wrote the following:

Point One: we live in a Fallen World where, because of sin, things go wrong and people say and do nasty things because they have free will.

Point Two: God does not override our free will and so permits the world to proceed as it does with things going wrong and people acting badly BUT He does expect us, His children, to act as His representatives and to be salt and light in it.

Point Three: He a) expects us to change the circumstances and b) be changed by the circumstances. We are to be one of His means of bringing change in this world while being changed into Jesus’ likeness as we do it.

That is the ‘big picture’ that we need to remember. Jesus IS ruling but he doesn’t do it with a heavy hand; he uses us (yes, he does sometimes move sovereignly without us as well) and sometimes waits for us to catch on to that, but the Father’s love IS always there, it is unfailing and it does not change because we are slow to understand or slow to act. It is still there despite whatever we do. “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8,16) the apostle John declared. Hold that truth firmly, never let it go, despite the appearances of what is going on around you. He IS there for us at all times, every day. Hold that, rejoice in it and be at peace in whatever is going on.

Snapshots: Day 44

Snapshots: Day 44

The Snapshot: “God said, “I will be with you.”  (Ex 3:12a) Is just knowing He is here enough? If everything the preachers say is true, it is not. If He is love, I want to sense that love, if He is comfort, I want to sense that comfort. If He says I will provide for you, I want to know that sense of provision. If He says I am the healer, I want to know healing. If I don’t know these things, why not?  What is missing? What am I missing? What? I must “believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Heb 11:6) That I need to remember to come near to him? (Jas 4:8) I can keep it in my intellect that He will never leave me (Heb 13:5) or I can wait upon Him, desiring to draw near to Him, until I sense He is here. That is a possibility; I’ve known it, so why don’t I do it more often?

Further Consideration: In the previous snapshot we considered some of God’s attributes about His being, His existence, but there are more that pertain to His character which leads to His words and His actions:

He is Faithful, He is Good, He is Just, He is Merciful, He is Gracious, He is Loving. If these things are true – and they are – if my heart isn’t yearning to experience them, there must be something wrong with me!

Thus when God says, “I will be with you,” then all of these things will be part of that experience, knowing His presence in the days that follow. We know that we can trust Him because He never changes in His attitude towards us, we can be assured of His goodness, that strange description that is so difficult to grasp, yet when we do, we have a feeling that it is right, pleasant, enjoyable and we need have no doubts about Him in any shape or kind. And so it goes on; these are the things about God that the Bible is clear about and which make knowing Him not only worthwhile but essential in life.

The apostle Paul wrote, “If God is for us, who can be against us.” (Rom 8:31) which could be equally said, “Because God is for us, who can be against us.” That is the truth, He is for us. He is with us, indwelling us by His Holy Spirit, working around us by His sovereign power, and ruling from heaven over the affairs of mankind, working them together for our benefit (Rom 8:28). That is almost too good to be true – but it is! But my experiences of Him being “with me” will vary.

There will be the relatively rare times that I referred to previously when His presence is virtually manifest and there is such an awareness of Him there; there will be other times when we have no sense of Him there (although He still is), and there are a multitude of experiences in between. Sometimes He seems very active in our lives, sometimes it seems like He is waiting and still – but He is still there!   Rest in that.

Snapshots: Day 13

Snapshots: Day 13

The Snapshot: “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid….”  Failure means guilt; guilt means fear. Fear means we run in shame to hide, or we kneel in need. Hiding and denial or honest acceptance; I need saving from me.  This is the place that would reveal my need for God’s salvation to save me from myself – if I dare face myself honestly.   God knew it would be like this, God was not surprised, and so when He banishes from the garden it is not the end but the beginning, the beginning of a self-centred life, a godless life where it is now God who hides only to come when we call. The life to come was to teach me, will I face me and be honest and call on Him, or will I still pretend and hide?  Lord, help me be honest.

Further Consideration: We finished yesterday saying the wisest course when we fail is to own up to it, but the trouble is that so often we are so unsure of the wonders of the Bible and of God, or we listen to the distorted truths of the enemy or his outright lies, that we fear retribution, we fear what He is going to do to us.

There are those preachers of the past who have majored on the awfulness of God’s wrath, completely misunderstanding it (and we’ll consider it later in the Bible) and ignoring the wonder of the truth that the apostle John declared, “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8,16), so clearly demonstrated in Jesus’ wonderful parable we refer to as ‘the Parable of the Prodigal Son’. The harsh and legalistic preacher would have the son starve to death at the pigsties, fearing to return home to the anger of the father. Instead the son clearly knows something about the father still, and risks returning home and all that might follow.

What followed? The father was out looking for the son and when he saw hm on the horizon he ran to meet him with open arms, welcomed him and reinstated him into the family and threw a celebratory party for him. So how can God the Father do that for His sinful, failing children? Because of what Jesus has done.  It’s not a case of ignoring the sin but of consigning it to the Cross where the eternal Son dealt with the guilt by taking the punishment. It defies rational thought but that is what happened.

When we truly hear this and understand it, we can come in repentance and, yes, contrition, and seek the forgiveness that is readily available to the repentant who own up to their misdeeds. That can come more easily in the security of the gospel, in the security that God is for us, but still wants us to ‘own up’ so we can then receive the forgiveness that is waiting for us. Maturity, for the Christian, is learning to ‘own up’ – quickly! We said it before but it bears repeating. Don’t let fear keep you from God, instead receive His perfect love. (see 1 Jn 4:18)

27. Building People

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 4 – Pondering on Vision

27. Building People

Mt 23:39  the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

Jn 13:34,35  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Vision Focus: We perhaps need to remind ourselves we are reflecting upon what it means to have a vision for our church, trying to catch something in more general or overall terms of what the New Testament shows is upon God’s heart and which we can work towards. Without vision, we have suggested, people die from lack of hearing the word and from lack of being fed. In the last two studies we have majored on the need to be God-centred, a spiritual people, but there is another side to this coin, people. Someone, in a conversation with me about the direction of the church, recently uttered the words, “Well people don’t matter.”  I spluttered back, “But they do. They mattered to Jesus so they must matter to us.”

The Jesus Approach: It is perhaps so familiar to us at Christmas that we perhaps forget it, but part of the Christmas story – and especially as it flows out of Isaiah’s prophecies – is ‘Immanuel – God with us’. The incarnation is all about God leaving heaven in the form of His Son and coming and living as a human being (not as an angel or some other ‘spirit-being’) to share in the experience of humanity and to reveal His love to us through that channel – as a human being. Yes, it is vital that we restore the God-focus to church but equally that we catch afresh the significance of being human beings made in the image of God who Jesus came to save.

As we read through the Gospels we see Jesus calling twelve men to travel with him for three years, to be with him, learning of him, to be like him. There were also a number of women who also traveled with him, and with whom he appears completely comfortable. But then the Gospels are filled with personal encounters, Jesus interacting with individual human beings, but when it comes to references to people groups we find he was completely at ease with the tax-collectors, prostitutes, and ‘sinners’, the riff-raff of society. Yes, he ate and drank with socialites as well and so we see him with a wide spectrum of people.

Thinking about People: The Church is about people and so perhaps we should consider, in the context of vision, what we think about that we do as people, with people. Perhaps we could consider a) how we relate on a normal daily basis with one another in church, b) how we view past hurts, c) how we go about serving together and d) how we go about reaching out to others, all good valid points for consideration as we look forward and ask, “What sort of church is it that God wants?”

Daily Encounters: The ethos of the church has to be love (and we’ll consider this in detail at a later stage). Very briefly, our starting point is, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” (Jn 3:16) to which John adds in his letter, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son,” (1 Jn4:10) i.e. it starts with God’s love for us. As we experience that and are filled with the Spirit of love (for “God is love” – 1 Jn 4:8,16) we respond to Jesus command, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12) We do this by loving, caring and accepting one another, learning to be encouragers, being there for one another. This is the starting vision we would want to convey, a church for whom people are important.

The Past is Important: Now I have referred to this already in a past study, but a danger that we have is to assume that once a person becomes a Christian, everything is fine and the past is sorted out. History and experience shows that this is not always so. Why? We live in a fallen world and a world that in the past century (at least here in the West) that has strayed badly from God’s norms. Thus we have many people damaged by past relationships going wrong. But it’s not just that, there are hurts from things beyond our control, inabilities to conceive, death of babies, death of children, death of loved ones prematurely through disease, all of these things cause hurts and often leave deep scars. Over the years I have had the opportunity to be in contact with ministries that minister to all of these sorts of things and I conclude, after having watched this for many years, that in any church of any size, part of their vision must be to seek healing for their hurting members, either through regularly (perhaps once a year?) bringing in an outside ministry, or training up our own people to so minister. All part of vision.

Serving Together: We have covered this in some detail in the two previous studies on servant-heartedness, so let’s abbreviate this to creating a church where individual gifts can be discerned and encouraged and developed and given space in which to operate. A big subject we will no doubt cover again before we finish.

Reaching Out Together: To misquote Jesus’ parable (Mt 13:45,46), having found a pearl of great price we will want others to find it as well. Now let’s try and remove some guilt from church. There will be those who have the gift of an evangelist (Eph 4:11, 2 Tim 4:5) and we need to encourage them, protect them and give them space and opportunity in which to operate. But we are not all evangelists. Some of us are what I call ‘people-people’, people who are natural communicators who get on well with anyone, but not everyone is like that. Introverts (and it is not a sin to be an introvert!) are not naturals like that. Yes, Jesus does call us all to be witnesses of his, and so there will come times when in conversations we need to speak out for him, but it does require sensitivity.  “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Pet 3:15) Some of us are good at creating and making such opportunities, others of us will just be salt and light and then have people asking about us.

Preparation: Now if you anticipate having such a conversation, because a friend or family member asks you about your faith, about God or about church or anything spiritual, it is useful to prepare before hand what you are going to say. To save space, here I will simply suggest that part of our vision is to prepare our people for this, train and equip them to be witnesses or evangelists, and within that, design special services or special gatherings (or just meals) where not-yet-believing friends or family can be invited in to hear and consider the possibilities of faith. Unless we put it in our vision, it probably won’t happen.

And So?  So there it is: vision is presenting a picture of what we believe God has on His heart for us in such a way that we can see things to work on, goals to aim for. If it is of God’s heart and we get God’s grace to share it, we should win over the vast majority of our flock to it, to enter into a future that draws us closer to God, enables us to experience His presence, His equipping, and His empowering, and gives us exciting purpose and direction for the days ahead. The excitement is in what we could become with His enabling and linked with that will be anticipation of the church changing and us bringing changes to the world around us – for good! So I guess it is time we moved on into the real stuff that thinks of what church is about in real terms. As we go into the next Part, perhaps with an eye to where we have been in this part, I want to start by considering what would we do if we were starting utterly from scratch. So take a dose of amnesia, sit down on a desert island with a Bible, and see what might happen

(Here again at the end of this Part we present an overview of this series)

Part 1 – Falling Short?

  1. Wonderings about Church
  2. Concern for People
  3. Challenged by Scripture
  4. Wondering about ‘Fitness for Purpose’
  5. Problems with Religion and Revival
  6. Appearance & Performance (1)
  7. Appearance & Performance (2)

Part 2 – A Different People

  1. Different
  2. Believers
  3. Supernatural
  4. Repentance and Conviction
  5. Needing to be ‘Saved’?
  6. A People of Faith

Part 3 – Making of Believers

  1. A Guilt-Free People
  2. No Longer Orphans
  3. Growing in Sonship
  4. The Yeast of Humility
  5. Getting on a Learning Curve
  6. The Reality of Sacrifice
  7. No Add-ons
  8. Servant-hearted (1)
  9. Servant-hearted (2)

Part 4 – Pondering on Vision

  1. The Significance of Vision
  2. More on ‘Why Vision?’
  3. The God Focus
  4. Spiritual Expressions
  5. Building People

Part 5 – Starting from Scratch

  1. Clear your Mind
  2. A New Creation
  3. Life (1)
  4. Life (2)
  5. Being Together
  6. Fellowship

Part 6 – thinking about Leaders

  1. Led
  2. Local leaders – overseers
  3. Local leaders – shepherds
  4. Local leaders – elders
  5. Local Leaders – The Nature of the Church (1)
  6. Gifts of Ministries – Introduction
  7. Gifts of Ministries – to plant
  8. Gifts of Ministries – to build up
  9. The Servants – Deacons
  10. The Nature of the Church (2)

Part 7 – Unique Ingredients

  1. Uniqueness
  2. Another quick look at ‘Vision’
  3. Power – for Life Transformation
  4. Power – for Life Service
  5. Power – for Living
  6. The Need for Faith
  7. More on Faith.
  8. Obedience
  9. Finale – the Church on God’s heart

43. Stop Grumbling

Short Meditations in John 6:  43. Stop Grumbling!

Jn 6:43   Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered  

So in v.41 we saw the crowd grumbling because of Jesus speaking about coming down from heaven and then in v.42 the fuller explanation, that they thought they knew his background so the whole thing didn’t make sense. Now we have Jesus telling them off for this grumbling.

We noted in v.41 that grumbling is an irritable or grumpy response, a negative response that looks to blame the communicator, but Jesus is going to give a completely different reason from the one we might give for their grumbling, but we’ll have to wait until the next verse for that.

We did consider previously how grumbling is the evidence of a bad attitude which we often see or hear about at the end of Sunday morning’s when the preacher doesn’t live up to expectations, but here we face something different: the challenging Jesus.

We are living in a period where we so often try to focus on God’s love but the trouble with that (and I started placing this emphasis over twenty years ago) is that it can almost sound like God tolerates whatever we do. I know I have said many times in the past, “God loves you exactly like you are, but He also loves you so much that He has something better for you than you have at present.” Very often we have tended to major on the first half of that mantra about God loving you exactly as you are, particularly to help those with low self-esteem or those who feel beaten up by their failures or the hard knocks of life. And it is true. We see it in the way Jesus took on board the disciples, the way he treated Zacchaeus and the way he accepted tax collectors and ‘sinners’.

But the second part of that mantra is equally important, that God desires more for each of us, so that we are able to receive yet more of His love, but that comes not by staying as we are, immature and childish with little understanding, but by Him changing us and it is at this point that we encounter the challenging or correcting Jesus.  To the woman caught in adultery it was, “Go, leave your life of sin.” (Jn 8:11) To Zacchaeus it was ‘come and invite me into your life’. (Lk 19:5). With Nicodemus he challenged his inability to understand (Jn 3:10).  Again and again we find Jesus challenging belief, looking for faith in the people before him and what he did then he does with us today. Remember the apostle Paul said the Scriptures are useful for “teaching, rebuking, correcting,” (2 Tim 3:16). Teaching sounds fine but ‘rebuking’ means reprimanding, censoring, scolding, while ‘correcting’ means putting right, changing to get it right, changing from wrong to right.  Jesus does all this with us. Are you OK with that?